Rebecca Horn

Gesine Borcherdt talks to Rebecca Horn, one of the most influential, yet relatively overlooked, artists of her generation

By Gesine Borcherdt

Metamorphoses Between Rock and Butterfly, 2014. Photo: Jason Wyche. © 2014 the artist / VG Bild Kunst / ARS. Courtesy Sean Kelly, New York Unicorn (film still), 1970, wood, fabric, metal. © 2014 the artist / VG Bild Kunst / ARS. Courtesy Tate, London Buster’s Bedroom (film still), 1990.  © 2014 the artist / VG Bild Kunst / ARS. Courtesy the artist Ballet of the Woodpeckers, 1986 (installation view, Theater am Steinhof, Vienna). Private collection. Photo: Gérard Zugmann.  © 2014 the artist / VG Bild Kunst / ARS Revelation of a Tree, 2014. Photo: Jason Wyche. © 2014 the artist / VG Bild Kunst / ARS. Courtesy Sean Kelly, New York

When someone moves back to their place of childhood late in life, it is certainly not because she has put it behind her. Especially not if that someone is Rebecca Horn. The woman with the saffron-red mane stands in a courtyard among a mix of buildings; her wide, black clothes flutter like feathers in the wind. In 1990, the now seventy-year-old returned to her father’s former textile factory in the Odenwald mountains in Germany in order to gradually transform it into a studio, workshop and museum for her own works. Among trees, the splashing creek and chicken coops, a chimney crowned with mirrors now towers in the air, shining at night in the moonlight like a halo. Horn named the place where she invites friends to celebrate, work and meditate Moontower Foundation. Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly sound like the next hip pilgrimage site for the art scene.

“It was a long night,” sighs Horn, whose first show – The Vertebrae Oracle – with Sean Kelly in New York took place this summer and who is at the moment preparing a show at Galerie Lelong in Paris, followed by another at Galerie Thomas Modern in Munich; a site-specific sculpture in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard is up after that. To this day the commissions flow for her like good energy, which she also wants to conjure up in this place. Horn has been anything but sedentary; for 20 years she named her place of residence in her biography as ‘on the road’. Since exhibiting in 1972 in Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 (as the youngest artist in the show), one offer followed the next. Horn moved to London, New York and Paris, and travelled for exhibitions more around the world than through Germany. In 1993 she became the only German woman thus far to have a major show in the Guggenheim Museum; one year later she had a show in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the city where she taught for 20 years at the Academy of Arts. Tate owns an extensive selection of her works and has bought all of her early work. And so now: the Odenwald.

“The other exhibition spaces always take my works down in the end,” says the artist while climbing from floor to floor up to the roof of the museum, turning switches on and off, and thereby setting her kinetic sculptures into motion. Each time she does, a gentle, dancelike magic radiates, which spreads to works by Meret Oppenheim, Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys, also on display in the space – it feels somewhat as if the ghosts of her past, as a child and as an artist, haunt the building.

In fact, one might ask where Horn actually stands today. Companions such as Nam June Paik and Beuys rank high in the canon of art history. Franz-Erhard Walther and Ulay are celebrating huge comebacks. Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz serve the establishment. And while Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta are worshipped as goddesses due to their tragic early deaths, Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono have turned to entertainment. Rebecca Horn, though? She is here, on the market and in museums – but she has no place in the younger art scene. That someone scaled Mount Olympus early on, and to this day unswervingly deals with the same subjects, apparently does not automatically make her a cult figure. But Horn, in actuality, is exactly that. In order to understand this, though, we must start from the beginning. If need be, from the Odenwald.

Horn grew up here with a Romanian governess who introduced her to painting. Her father loved opera. The war had just ended and, from that point on, teachers did not know how to teach history. Even though they were industrialists, Horn’s parents supported her art studies in Hamburg. They died shortly thereafter. Horn became ill in her lungs, “because I had worked with poisonous materials”, as she says. Although it fits almost too perfectly into her artistic biography, she was confined to a sanatorium for over a year, without contact with others. Sketches of hoses and pipes that can be attached to breasts, fingers and the face became the basis for a series of 22 body sculptures that function as interactive art. With Trunk (1967– 9), Pencil Mask (1972) and Finger Gloves (1972), which the artist puts on, she extends the body into space, where it carries out gentle movements. She puts her friends in body fans, feather cocoons and hair masks. The performance Unicorn (1970) is specifically designed for a classmate with a rigid gait, who moves through the forest as if in a trance with a metre-long pole on her head. “It couldn’t be repeated,” says Horn. “The energy was not the same the second time.”

Horn was one of the most important pioneers of the day. Her prosthetics, bandages and masks referred, in a soft, minimal-mystical language, to gender roles and the social corset in which one moved

At a time in which space became the main theme in art – Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) had just been translated into English – Horn was one of the most important pioneers of the day. Her prosthetics, bandages and masks referred, in a soft, minimal-mystical language, to gender roles and the social corset in which one moved. When in ‘Of Other Spaces’ (1967) Michel Foucault writes that ‘we do not live in a homogeneous and empty space, but on the contrary in a space thoroughly imbued with quantities and perhaps thoroughly fantasmatic as well’, his thoughts can be translated directly to Horn’s sense for atmosphere, as it also unfolds in her later works. And it is for these – her mechanical sculptures – that Horn is best known today. The first was called The Chinese Fiancée (1976) and stood in the gallery of René Block in New York, where one happened upon it like a trap. The doors closed, Asian voices whispered in the dark – one had the feeling that the sculpture was alive.

Horn now stood at a turning point: from this point on, mechanical apparatuses would take over the role of humans in entering into dialogue with space. Electric fans made of feathers, brushes and metal wave lightly, as if by magic, up and down (Peacock Machine, 1979 –80). Hammers, spoons, pumps and pendulums begin to move, spray paint or hit each other, seizing the entire space with minimal gestures (Ballet of the Woodpeckers, 1986). Mercury in a vitrine goes crazy under the influence of a magnet (Snake Piano, 1988); hammering typewriters hang, in the Chorus of the Locusts (1991), from the ceiling and cause glasses to vibrate. Mirrors, eggs, shells, feathers and whips appear over and over – utensils, as if out of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1899), transformed into surreal, playful or nervously aggressive protagonists from an erotic alchemistic, yet still reduced poetry.

Hammers, spoons, pumps and pendulums begin to move, spray paint or hit each other, seizing the entire space with minimal gestures. Mercury in a vitrine goes crazy under the influence of a magnet

At the end of the 1980s Horn was one of the artists who went to historical places in order to reanimate Germany’s past directly onsite: for Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1987 she opened up a tower in which people were tortured during the Third Reich: small steel hammers, flickering lights and an ostrich egg created an almost breathing memory space that, with its filigree sensuality, became the perfect antimonument. ‘My machines have almost human features,’ Horn once said. ‘The tragic or melancholic aspect is important to me. I don’t even want them to work forever.’

The poetry that this approach embraces has its roots in the poems that precede each work. “I have always written. For me it is not about reality, but rather about finding different images,” explains Horn. “My texts are essentially scripts for the sculptures.” In fact, speaking of scripts, she has also made films – not just to document scenes with body sculptures, but also scenes with a particular narrative in which, in addition to the figures, pieces of furniture in the space also become protagonists (eg, The Gigolo, 1978). She reached her zenith, in this regard – and perhaps also as an artist – in 1990 with Buster’s Bedroom. Here, in a sanatorium near Santa Barbara, California, where Buster Keaton was once treated for his alcohol problems, there lives a group of failed artists whose crazy cosmos is permeated by Horn’s motifs like a total installation – butterflies, shells, whip, straitjacket – and where her prosthetic world culminates in a chamber drama in which Geraldine Chaplin goes crazy as an ageing diva in a wheelchair and Donald Sutherland dances with snakes. Each figure is assigned his or her own space, which reflects their characters. Actual topographies become psychosocial ones; they appear as cocoons in which one dreams, suffers and remembers, similar to those that Bachelard describes in The Poetics of Space: ‘We return to them in our night dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell.’ When one considers that Horn’s sculptures from the last five years – like Muschelschlaf (2009), Zen der Eule (2010) and Sonnenzentrum (2014) – still pulse, push and wink, and appear as libidinous as Bachelard’s spaces, one gladly ignores the excess of Zen that covers everything like a robe.

Back in the courtyard, Horn squints through the sunlight up to the treetops: a raven circles above as if remote-controlled. “He wants to get into the chicken coop,” she says and laughs. Of course. She who has built a world for herself, as hermetic and fragile as an egg, has never left her nest, despite all her high-flying adventures. And what, if not this, makes a cult figure?

A solo exhibition of work by Rebecca Horn is on view at Galerie Thomas Modern, Munich, until 21 February 2015; Horn’s site-specific sculpture for the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was unveiled on 16 November 2014. This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.